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Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Jury Is Still Out

Saw this review of "Talk To Me" on Afrospear:


Cruising along cinema’s chitlin’ circuit
By Armond White (IW-btw, this dude called "Torque" a pop art masterpeice)
Talk to Me
Directed by Kasi Lemmons

“Every stereotype has truth,” says Don Cheadle as Petey Greene. That fallacy ruins Talk to Me, the new film about Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, the radio disc jockey who was popular among Washington D.C.’s black listeners in the 1960s. Taking a nostalgic view of that period and its styles, director Kasi Lemmons attempts to re-animate stereotypes; she misreads the music, clothes, afros and attitude as the essence of Petey, his woman Vernell (Taraji P. Henson) and Dewey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the radio exec who put him on the air.

Lemmons’ approach in Talk to Me strikingly contrasts Radio Golf, August Wilson’s recently closed Broadway play, the final installment of his 10-part opus about black American life in the 20th century. While using each decade as a setting, Wilson subverted racial stereotypes by consistently concentrating on his characters’ spiritual and social struggle—not style. Talk to Me relies on stereotypes as an easy way of involving the audience, making Petey’s self-destructive, mack-daddy behavior seem familiar. But when Talk to Me shows how Petey eventually botched his own career arc, he becomes an enigma rather than a man whose difficulties and stress have been made clear, or deeply felt, as with Wilson’s vividly imagined characters.

Nostalgia has taken the place of research and insight in faux black American histories like Talk to Me, Dreamgirls, Ray and Ali—the new cinematic chitlin’ circuit. Our pop past, as represented by fashion and music and television, provides a superficial link to history. Lemmons and screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa go no deeper than Petey Greene’s surface (which unfortunately resembles Tim Meadows in Ladies Man). No wonder Wilson was reluctant to sell Hollywood rights to his plays; he correctly feared how even black filmmakers tended to turn life into clichés. Talk to Me begins in a prison where Dewey visits his inmate brother (Mike Epps) and first encounters Petey jiving on the p.a. system. Petey asks for a job when he’s released and Dewey dismisses him as a “miscreant.” Far from examining masculine competitiveness—as in Walter Hill’s great prison/life drama Undisputed—this is just instant class conflict: the suit vs. the pimp suit.

Dewey and Petey—the well-behaved assimilationist and the wild, unembarrassed stereotype—circle round the issue of black legitimacy; it’s the guilty secret of Lemmons’ previous films. Mustachioed Petey and rump-shaking Vernell bust into Dewey’s office buckin’ and stylin’ and slinging Ebonics the way actors would do in blaxploitation films a full decade later. Dewey recognizes Petey’s natural gift and hires him. Their teamwork leads to success and fame that get explained in superficial terms: “I need you to say the things I’m afraid to say. You need me to do the things you’re afraid to do.” This fatuous examination of careerism is hung-up on opposing styles of behavior without understanding that Dewey and Petey share complementary goals yet hold different values. That’s Wilson’s key insight about the male protagonists of Radio Golf, but Talk to Me confuses the problem when success-drunk Petey complains, “I never asked for this shit!” (The film doesn’t acknowledge that one has to work on his patter the way the other has to work on spread sheets.) Lemmons ignores Petey’s satisfaction with money and celebrity for fear of losing her specious house negro/field negro dichotomy.

Cheadle and Ejiofor leap at the men’s stereotypical differences. From Dewey’s “The world’s been waiting for a nigger like you” to Petey’s “Love you like a brother,” the relationship is as fake as the afro toupees, ’70s mutton-chops and chest medallions. Cheadle lacks a star DJ’s insinuating voice so he emphasizes Petey’s impudent swagger, yet he’s never trenchantly persuasive like the itinerant worker in Radio Golf who describes his swelling hope as, “I felt like I had my dick in my hand.” Wilson’s line distilled machismo to a psychological basis. It dissolves stereotypes of black male bravado whereas “Every stereotype has truth” keeps us ignorant.
After the disgrace of Samuel L. Jackson imitating a jack-o-lantern in The Caveman’s Valentine and the mawkish sisterhood of Eve’s Bayou, it’s fair to say that Kasi Lemmons’ view of black folks has always been reductive. Only her weak compositions are worse, such as reducing the D.C. riots after MLK’s assassination to a blizzard of paper in the streets. All this suggests that Lemmons doesn’t know enough about African-American experience to fill a chitlin’.
From Invisible Woman: I respect all opinions, but brothaman might be a bit harsh. I just wish our first thought would be constructive commentary and not criticism when black folks are trying to do their own. I agree that there are too many films of all genres that mistake music, clothes, and a soundtrack for a film, but Kasi Lemmons has always struck me as way more thoughtful than that. And I loved "Eve's Bayou".
I would love to hear anyone's thoughts of the film that has seen it. I'll reserve my opinion for now.


Anonymous said...

Saw it last night. Magic Johnson's theaters, L.A. Couldn't agree with more with Mr. White.

This was a bad movie (maybe that's why it's not getting the publicity and such you'd think... not even a spot on Oprah's couch).

My two lingering thoughts were, one, why did they make this movie? The answer to which is Don Cheadle. I love that he's got the pull to get his movies done, and I really liked "Hotel Rawanda", but between this and "Crash" I'm starting to question his tastes. There's just no story here.

My second thought was that I've possibly been too hard on Spike Lee (maybe it was the Terrence Blanchard score, who knows?). For all his bad-to-mediocre films of the past ten years, he at least always brought a point of view to his movies. His characters in the beginning really resonated, and while I think he, too, has recently fallen into the trap of using stereotypes and caricature to shorthand character ("She Hate Me"... "Bamboozled"...), at least he gives us something to watch. Ms. Lemmons film, on the other hand, was amateurish and, most damning, boring. Even at his worst you can't say that about Spike.

What a waste of Chiwetel Ejiofor, too. He's really a great actor.

Thembi said...

I haven't seen it but I put a video of the real Petey Green on my blog that you may enjoy.


Keli said...

I actually want to see this movie. I tend to like those that get negative reviews, and don't necessarily understand the hype of movies that everyone tends to love. I think I will have to judge for myself.

and...I loved "Crash" by the way.

Invisible Woman said...

I'm the same way, Keli; I have liked several badly reviewed films, including the one that inspired me to start this blog "Shadowboxer". I liked Crash, but in no way did I think it deserved best had some brilliant performances, even from those who I previously thought were animated mannequins, haha.

But while I loathed "She Hate Me" and "Bamboozled", I can't front, they were not boring. Everyone has their own opinions, that why I never trust reviews.

PurpleZoe said...

I haven't seen this film but I LOVED Eve's Bayou.
It was lyrical and beautifully constructed.

The Black community has dealt with systematic conditioning that has caused self attack based on self-loathe. Unfortunately not everyone has healed yet, or realized self love, in our community. I
The positive criticism will come. I know my spectacles are rainbow colored, but I have pretty good intuition and I think alot of folks are ready to embrace their reflection and their like reflection as well.

This reviewer may also have some deepseated urges to attack feminine
empowerment in addition to attacking like image...

His review is suspect imo...

And Torque?????? Is no masterpiece.
His credibility is lost just by giving it a thumbs up. Even Lisa Bonet couldn't make that film work.

(God I love your blog)

Invisible Woman said...

Thanks PZ :-) Eve's Bayou was ALL ABOUT strong sisterhood, Kasi Lemmons says that's one of her biggest things in life. Did you know the crew for Eve's Bayou and Caveman's Valentine was largely made up of women?

PurpleZoe said...

I didn't. I'm glad to know it.
Bless her for traveling the road the traveled. It's only a matter of time before the 'female' mafia sets up established shop and starts funding and cranking out movies and media with depth (I hope to see major success for Miss GOod's Freedom Bridge), because seriously these mysogynistic stereotypes and racist undertones in "modern" cinema are blaringly obvious.
The excuse that 'they didn't know what would offend' really won't fly these days.
Kasi Lemmons as an amazing eye. She should be heralded for that rather than dragged down by someone who believes 'Torque' is a cinematic masterpiece of any kind...

Maybe Kasi's new movie needed more work...I don't know, but I'll aim to see it and see if I agree with that.

It's only a matter of time, and blogs like yours are setting the record straight on the reality of things.
That is a revolutionary act in an age where so many have gone the route of 'mainstream' boot licking as if they don't see the trends that have made it impossible for these large corporations to maintain a foothold in the changing times.
The film industry is ailing. You can hardly ever find a good movie to watch out of the many choices offered each year, as of late.
The record industry is done pretty much because of the digital age and the playing field is leveled in so many arenas, which tells me the universe is ready for everyone to be able to express and create for mass consumption...

You can't fight an invisible force that's larger than you Hollywood.
It's time to get over that and join the rest of conscious humanity already...We're awake again.

belledame222 said...

Don't know this one, but I liked "Eve's Bayou" a lot. I was wondering what became of Lemmons after that.